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Archive for the ‘global warming’ Category

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Have the Texas oil companies backing Proposition 23 surrendered in the fundraising battle over the ballot measure that would suspend California’s global warming law?

Since Thursday, the No on 23 forces have raised more than $7.3 million as the Silicon Valley-Hollywood-environmental-industrial complex revved up for the final push before Election Day on Nov. 2.

The Yes campaign’s take since Thursday? $10,000.

The No on 23 campaign now has raised $25.8 million to the Yes effort’s $9.1 million as money from the petrochemical industry backing Prop 23 has all but dried up in recent weeks, according to California Secretary of State records.

The tsunami of cash flooding into the No campaign indicates the breadth of support from California’s establishment for the state’s global warming law, known as AB 32, which requires greenhouse gas emissions be cut to 1990 levels by 2020.

Avatar director James Cameron attracted the most attention with his $1 million donation on Friday. But Gordon Moore, the legendary co-founder of chip giant Intel, also dropped $1 million into the No coffers that day, and so did Pacific Gas & Electric ($250,000), California’s largest utility and a leading proponent of climate change legislation. Google co-founder Sergey Brin also donated $200,000 on Thursday, and an organization of Silicon Valley tech companies contributed $125,000.

On Tuesday, a group of some 66 investors controlling more than $400 billion in assets are scheduled to hold a press conference to announce their opposition to Prop 23.

In the meantime, national environmental groups and non-profits continued to pour cash into the No campaign last week. The National Wildlife Federation contributed $3 million on Friday. ClimateWorks Foundation, a San Francisco non-profit, gave $900,000. New York’s Rockefeller Family Fund kicked in $300,000 on Thursday and the Natural Resources Defense Council, a top No on 23 donor, added $300,000 more Friday.

Environmentalists are also starting to focus on Proposition 26, a little-noticed California ballot measure that would reclassify environmental impact fees as taxes and require a two-thirds vote of the state legislature to impose them rather than a simple majority. Green groups and AB 32 supporters fear Prop 26 could cripple efforts to levy fees to implement the global warming law.

The oil, alcohol, and tobacco companies backing Prop 26 have so far raised $13.6 million while opponents have managed to collect only $2.8 million, according to state campaign records.

Still, a spokesman for the No on 23 told the Los Angeles Times that the No campaign would not redirect its cash to the Prop 26 fight, saying the battle over the global warming law has yet to be won.

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

The president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed (on right in above photo), didn’t just agree to have solar panels installed on the presidential mansion; he helped put them in. Nasheed scrambled up to the roof this week, screwdriver in hand, and joined the crew from California’s Sungevity, which installed the 11.5-kilowatt photovoltaic array.

(Don’t expect to see Barack Obama in a hard hat any time soon, even though his administration just gave the OK to the solarization of the White House.)

The Maldives, of course, is the poster country for global warming. The Indian Ocean archipelago rests, on average, fewer than five feet above sea level and the nation of some 305,000 people would be rendered uninhabitable by rising waters.

“For the Maldives, climate change is a real challenge,” said Nasheed on a conference call Wednesday. “It’s not a problem in the future, it’s a problem we face every day.”

“We have 16 islands that have serious erosion problems,” he added. “We’ve had to relocate people from one island to another. We also have severe saltwater contamination. We have a serious food security issue.”

Sungevity and Bill McKibben’s 350.org were behind the campaign to put solar on the U.S. White House. The Maldives rooftop installation is part of this Sunday’s 10/10/10 “Global Work Party,” another McKibben initiative to get people to take action against climate change.

Nasheed, 43, has shown himself adept at focusing media attention on the impact of global warming on the world’s low-lying island nations — last October, he and his cabinet donned scuba gear to hold an underwater meeting.

But putting solar panels on the presidential home is not so much a PR stunt as part of the nation’s aggressive efforts to wean itself from the imported oil it relies on to generate electricity.

In January, Nasheed pledged to the United Nations that the Maldives would go carbon neutral by 2020. Making good on his pledge won’t turn back the rising tide, but Nasheed said the Maldives can show other island nations that it is possible to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. “If it can work here in the Maldives it can work anywhere with 300,000 people,” he said. “We’re going to see a very big technology shift. There’s going to be another industrial revolution. If you’re not clever enough to embrace the future, you cannot be a world leader.”

According to an official in the president’s office, the Maldives total electricity demand is 200 megawatts.

A Finnish company, WinWind, has proposed building a 25-megawatt wind farm on the Maldives’ Gaaf Alif atoll, while Indian wind turbine maker Suzlon is investigating the feasibility of constructing a 15-megawatt wind farm on the Addu atoll. Japan has provided financial assistance for a project to install a megawatt’s worth of rooftop arrays on schools and government buildings in Male, the country’s capital.

International donors, meanwhile, have promised $30 million for renewable projects. Scotland and the Maldives have signed an agreement to investigate the potential for developing wave and tidal power in the archipelago, according to the president’s office.

To provide electricity when there’s no wind or sun, the Maldives is considering biomass power plants that would run on coconut husks. Outlying islands, however, would probably have to continue burning oil until the price of batteries used to store renewable energy became affordable.

LG, the Korean company, donated the panels for the presidential solar array and the inverters were contributed by the German company Kaco. Sungevity used satellite images and its proprietary software to size and design the solar system at its Oakland, Calif., headquarters, then flew a crew to the Maldives to install it.

“We’re averting about 200 tons of C02 from the system and there’s a 27 percent return on investment,” said Danny Kennedy, Sungevity’s co-founder and a former Greenpeace activist, who traveled to the Maldives for the installation. “President Nasheed is demonstrating this is a wise and affordable investment.”

Or as Nasheed put it, “For us, it is an issue of life or death. We have been living in the middle of the Indian Ocean and have a written history that goes back 1,000 years. We cannot relocate.”

“We have to take direct action,” he continued. “As the president, it’s difficult for me to talk like this. This has to involve a fair amount of direct action on the streets.”

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

The campaign against Proposition 23, the California ballot initiative that would suspend the state’s global warming law, took in more than a half million dollars in contributions this week. Meanwhile, fundraising by the oil companies backing the measure was so lackluster it prompted a plea for help from the petrochemical industry.

“A defeat for Proposition 23 in California could energize environmental fanatics around the country and in Washington to match California’s destructive policies with their own versions of AB32,” wrote Charles T. Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, in an email first reported by The New York Times. “We’ve raised about $6 million so far, but unfortunately in California’s expensive media market this is not enough to win the fight against environmental zealots led by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who seems hell-bent on becoming the real-life Terminator of our industry.”

“I am pleading with each you,” Drevna continued, “for our nation’s best interest and for your company’s own self-interest, please contact me and tell me how much you can contribute to this critical effort as soon as possible. Nov. 2 is drawing near.”

The Texas oil companies backing the initiative made news recently when they secured a $1 million donation from the billionaire Koch brothers, who bankroll various right-wing causes. But the only sizeable donation to the Yes on 23 campaign this week came from Tower Energy Group, a Southern California-based petroleum wholesaler, which contributed $100,000 on Monday. Meanwhile, according to campaign finance records, the anti-Prop 23 forces have been having a pretty good few weeks.

On Monday, Susan Packard Orr, yet another daughter of David Packard, the late co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, contributed $250,000 to the No campaign. She joins her two sisters who have given a total of $201,895 to the effort to defeat Prop 23.

On Wednesday, William Patterson of SPO Partners, a Marin County, Calif., private investment firm, also gave $250,000. The California chapter of the Audubon Society stepped up with a $100,000 donation last week. Earlier in the month, Environment California, a non-profit, made a $100,000 contribution.

Another non-profit, the San Francisco-based Tides Foundation, put in $40,000 while a high-profile San Francisco real estate magnate, Douglas Shorenstein, contributed $25,000.

The big Silicon Valley venture capitalists, who vociferously oppose a ballot initiative that could derail the billions of dollars they’ve invested in green technology startups, have largely remained no-shows on the No on 23 donor roll. Though Tom Baruch, founder of CMEA Capital, did give $25,000 on Wednesday, and John Doerr, a leading green tech investor with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, is a notable exception with his $500,000 investment to defeat Prop 23.

If Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists decide to open their checkbooks, game on.

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Photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

With the campaign season revving up, even more money is starting to flow into the campaign to defeat Proposition 23.

Prop 23 is the California ballot initiative that would suspend the state’s landmark climate change law. Its opponents had been relying mostly on the largesse of a California coalition of environmental groups and Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists and tech elite to finance their No on 23 campaign. But now No forces are tapping out-of-state donors.

On Thursday, they got $250,000 from New York investor Nicolas Berggruen. Berggruen is head of Berggruen Holdings, which has made investments in wind energy projects.

Also last week, Nancy Burnett of Lummi Island, Wash., deposited $100,000 in the anti-Prop 23 coffers. Burnett is a daughter of David Packard, co-founder of Silicon Valley tech giant Hewlett-Packard, and a supporter of Democratic candidates.

And this week, David Bonderman, a Texas investor with TPG Capital, donated $7,500.

Closer to home, Warren Hellman, the wealthy San Francisco investor, banjo player, and blue-grass aficionado, wrote a $75,000 check to the No campaign. The campaign’s supporters are fighting to preserve California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, popularly known as Assembly Bill 32. AB 32 requires the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and allows the creation of a cap-and-trade market to meet that mandate.

The bulk of the money financing the pro-Prop 23 campaign has come from two Texas-based oil companies, Tesoro and Valero, and other out-of-state fossil fuel interests. The most recent big donation came earlier this month when Valero gave $3 million to the effort.

Both sides expect the campaign spending to peak somewhere north of $100 million by the time Election Day rolls around in November, with huge amounts of cash rolling in when the traditional election season kicks off after Labor Day.

One person watching the Prop 23 battle closely is Lawrence Goldenhersh, chief executive of Enviance, a California firm that sells environmental compliance software and services — including those that track greenhouse gas emissions — to big industrial companies.

“If AB 32 is sustained by the voters of California, you will have the largest plebiscite in the history of the climate change debate cast by voters in the world’s seventh largest economy,” Goldenhersh told me Tuesday. “If AB 32 survives and Jerry Brown gets elected governor I think you’ll have cap-and-trade nationally by 2013.”

Enviance has clients on both sides of the Prop 23 fight — including Valero — and thus is not taking a position on the ballot measure, according to Goldenhersh. Still, he calls the election the “Normandy invasion of climate change.”

“If Prop 23 passes and AB 32 is suspended or killed then I think there will not be a lot of drive and political appetite to take on a piece of grand climate legislation in Congress,” he says. “People will say, ‘if it’s too expensive for California then it’s too expensive for a little state.’ “

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photo: NRDC

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

The climate war has shifted to California.

Proposition 23, an initiative that would suspend Assembly Bill 32 (AB 32), the state’s landmark global warming law, provides the first ballot box test for climate change legislation — and for the prospects of reviving a national cap-and-trade bill.

So far, much of the media attention has focused on Prop 23’s funding. It’s being underwritten by the Texas oil companies Tesoro and Valero along with other mostly out-of-state petrochemical and fossil fuel interests. Prop 23 supporters have contributed more than $6.5 million to the campaign.

But a review of opposition fundraising — for the No on 23 campaign — offers a revealing look at what amounts to a fight for the future, a struggle between the industrial behemoths of the old fossil fuel economy and a startup coalition of environmental groups, Silicon Valley technology companies, financiers, and old-line corporations looking to profit from decarbonizing California.

“The choice that is before California is between the new clean economy versus the dirty old economy,” says Annie Notthoff, California advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The Silicon Valley folks who are willing to invest in the new clean energy economy with their dollars are tangible evidence that this is an economic issue as well as an environmental one.”

The NRDC has emerged as one of the key fundraisers, funneling more than a million dollars to the No on 23 campaign to date. Big green groups such as NRDC and the Environmental Defense Fund took the lead on forging alliances with Fortune 500 companies in the unsuccessful effort to pass national climate change legislation. In contrast, the heavy hitters in California’s Prop 23 battle are green tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, who have traditionally shied away from electoral politics.

The last stand for climate change has brought John Doerr, a leading green tech investor with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, to the table. Doerr has given $500,000 to defeat Prop 23. And he’s not alone.

Wendy Schmidt, founder the 11th Hour Project, a Silicon Valley environmental grant-making nonprofit (and wife of Google chief executive Eric Schmidt), donated $500,000 to NRDC’s No Prop 23 Committee. (Disclosure: The Schmidt Family Foundation is a financial supporter of Grist’s, and Wendy Schmidt is a member of the Grist Board.)

Google itself hasn’t contributed to the No campaign, but last week the search giant’s green energy chief, Bill Weihl, assured a gathering at the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters that, “We’re strongly behind the No on 23 campaign” and the global warming law, known as AB 32.

When asked about Google’s potential financial support for the No campaign, company spokesperson Parag Chokshi said, “Google has been a very strong supporter of AB 32 and wants it to be implemented. We’ll continue to monitor the situation as we move forward.”

To date, the heaviest hitter on Team No is Thomas Steyer, the press-shy founder of San Francisco hedge fund Farallon Capital Management. Steyer, a big donor to Democratic candidates, has pledged $5 million and stepped forward to co-chair the No on 23 Committee with George Schulz, the Republican former secretary of state.

“I personally come at this issue as a businessperson who cares about the economic future of California as well as the environmental and security issues here,” Steyer said on a conference call late last month. “The right way to frame this is that we have a fairly stark choice to either move forward or turn back the clock.”

“We have 12,000 companies in California working on clean energy already,” he added. “It’s going to be one of the dominant spaces in the world and for us to excel and lead in this area we need a consistent regulatory framework for investment.”

Yet another mainstream investor is Robert Fisher, former chair of The Gap, the San Francisco-based clothing empire. Like Schmidt, Fisher has put up a half million dollars for the NRDC fund. And Southern California investor Anne Getty Earhart, an heir to the Getty oil fortune, donated $250,000 directly to the No campaign.

“What makes this unusual is that this is not your classic tree-huggers-versus-big business battle,” says Steve Maviglio, a longtime California Democratic operative and the chief spokesperson for the No on Prop 23 campaign. “Environmentalists, dyed-in-the-wool businessmen, tech companies — they have all been very active in fundraising, active on the lecture circuit and before editorial boards.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: U.S. Navy

In The New York Times on Tuesday, I write about Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’ plans to green the Navy and Marine Corps and help build a market for new technologies:

Want to stimulate demand for renewable energy? Send in the Marines.

That was Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’s message on Monday when he outlined plans to slash the Navy and Marine Corps’ dependence on fossil fuels during an appearance on Monday evening at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club.

“We use in the Navy and Marine Corps almost 1 percent of the energy that America uses,” Mr. Mabus said. “If we can get energy from different places and from different sources, you can flip the line from ‘Field of Dreams’ — If the Navy comes, they will build it. If we provide the market, then I think you’ll begin to see the infrastructure being built.”

“Within 10 years, the United States Navy will get one half of all its energy needs, both afloat and onshore, from non-fossil fuel sources,” he added. “America and the Navy rely too much on fossil fuels. It makes the military, in this case our Navy and Marine Corps, far too vulnerable to some sort of disruption.”

Reaching those renewable energy goals will be a gargantuan challenge. The Navy operates 290 ships, 3,700 aircraft, 50,000 non-combat vehicles and owns 75,200 buildings on 3.3 million acres of land.

Last year the Navy launched its first electric hybrid ship, the Makin Island, an amphibious assault vessel that some have dubbed the Prius of the seas. On its maiden voyage from a shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., to its home base in San Diego, the Makin Island saved $2 million in fuel costs, Mr. Mabus said.

“In terms of our fleet, we have most of ships we’re going to have in 2020 so we know what we have to do to change that,” he said in a conversation with Greg Dalton, a Commonwealth Club executive. “We can do things like retrofit ships with hybrid drives. Mainly it’s changing the fuels.”

Two days after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April, a Navy pilot flew an F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet powered by a biofuel blend made from the seeds of camelina sativa, an inedible plant.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: eSolar

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

As the traditional Labor Day kickoff to the fall election campaign approaches, the battle is intensifying over Proposition 23, the California ballot initiative that would effectively repeal the state’s landmark climate change law.

And thus the title of a gathering Tuesday at Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters: “Electric Bills & Oil Spills: Will California Continue to be a Clean Energy Leader?”

The not-so-subtle subtext: Not if Prop 23 passes.

“We’re strongly behind the No on 23 campaign,” Bill Weihl, Google’s green energy czar (yes, that’s his title), said as he kicked off the event in a company café packed with Bay Area green A-listers.

Not surprisingly, the panel focused less on the environmental consequences of Prop 23 than on the potential for the ballot initiative to derail California’s green tech revolution.

“Proposition 23 will kill markets and the single largest source of job growth in California in the last two years,” declared Vinod Khosla, a leading green tech investor, referring to the clean energy economy. “Not only that, it’ll kill investment in the long term for creating the next 10 Googles.”

Chipped in Weihl: “For California, we can either lead in this and invest in it and participate in this huge growth sector or cede that to China, India, and other places. It would be crazy for us to sit back and let others take that opportunity.”

Underwritten by Texas oil companies Tesoro and Valero and other out-of-state fossil fuel corporations, Prop 23 would suspend California’s global warming law — popularly known as AB 32, as in Assembly Bill 32 — until the unemployment rate drops to 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters. (In other words, never.) AB 32 requires California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, which most likely would be accomplished through a cap-and-trade market.

Khosla and Weihl were joined on a panel by Mary Nichols, head of the California Air Resources Board, the agency charged with implementing AB 32; and Tom Bottorff, an executive with the utility PG&E.

“If you listen to the arguments of the proponents of Prop 23, their vision of California is a World War II or 1950s vision,” said Nichols, who before her appointment by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a longtime activist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They want to go back to a time when rubber factories and building of aircraft and automobiles were the main businesses of California.”

As the fight over Prop 23 heats up, expect to see a lot more of such talk from a place where the future is the main export.

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photo: Todd Woody

In a followup to my story in Wednesday’s New York Times about recycling farmland and toxic waste sites for renewable energy projects, I take a deeper dive into why some farmers in the California’s San Joaquin Valley want to stop raising crops and start growing electrons:

In an article in The New York Times on Wednesday, I wrote about an ambitious plan to build one of the world’s largest solar energy complexes on 30,000 acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley of California.

Elsewhere, big renewable energy projects have encountered opposition from farmers, ranchers and environmentalists who worry about the impact of solar power plants on agriculture, wildlife and scarce water supplies.

But farmers in the San Joaquin Valley’s Westlands Water District are embracing solar power as a solution to their water woes. And environmental groups are backing the project as a way to avoid fights over building solar power plants in pristine desert areas.

In the 1960s, the west side of the San Joaquin Valley was transformed from a desert to one of the nation’s most productive agricultural centers thanks to a huge irrigation project that transports water from Northern California and distributes it to 600,000 acres of farmland through 1,034 miles of underground pipes.

Decades of irrigation and drainage problems led to a buildup of salt in the soil that forced the water district to spend $100 million to acquire and retire 100,000 acres of land from most agricultural production. Drought and environmental disputes over the impact of water diversions on endangered fish, meanwhile, slashed water deliveries to Westlands farmers.

The water district hopes to make money off salt-contaminated land by providing an initial 12,000 acres to Westside Holdings, a firm that has proposed building a 5,000-megawatt photovoltaic power complex called the Westlands Solar Park.

And farmers like Mark Shannon have agreed to lease their parched land to Westside, reluctantly concluding there’s more money to be made by growing electrons than crops.

“Last year, we received only 10 percent of our water supply and we idled 85 percent of this ranch,” said Mr. Shannon of the 5,300-acre property that his family has farmed for three generations. “My dad is 67 and I can’t believe how many times I’ve called him and he’s in tears — he just always figured he’d pass this land on to me.”

Mr. Shannon took me up in a small plane for a bird’s-eye view of the impact of the water crisis on his land, where brown fields surround green patches of almonds and pistachios. Beyond his farm are dry lands that stretch to the horizon, property owned by the Westlands Water District and taken out of irrigated production.

“Last year, we had over 250,000 acres in the district that didn’t get farmed,” said Sarah Woolf, a Westlands spokeswoman. “Then you have drainage issues coupled with the long-term reliability of the water supply.”

Desperate farmers have been spending millions of dollars drilling hundreds of deep groundwater wells, which in turn has caused subsidence problems.

In other parts of California, the prospect of covering square miles of farmland with solar panels has stirred outrage among some rural residents. But Mr. Shannon and Westlands officials don’t expect any significant opposition in the San Joaquin Valley.

The reason: if farmers such convert their land to solar farms, their water allocations will be redistributed to their neighbors.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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Photo: Lori Eanes.

In a piece I wrote for Yale Environment 360, I interview the new executive director of the Sierra Club, Michael Brune, about what’s next for the green movement in the wake of the defeat of federal climate change legislation:

In March, Michael Brune took over as executive director of the Sierra Club, the oldest and largest environmental organization in the United States. The Sierra Club doesn’t change leaders often — he’s only the sixth executive director in its 118-year history — and in selecting Brune, the group’s board chose to go with a young outsider with a track record of campaigning in the streets and confronting corporations to effect environmental change.

Brune, 38, previously ran the Rainforest Action Network, a San Francisco-based group whose slogan is “Environmentalism with Teeth.” With a small staff and modest budget, Rainforest Action has extracted agreements from companies such as Home Depot and Citigroup to abandon environmentally destructive practices.

In moving four blocks from Rainforest Action’s offices to the Sierra Club’s national headquarters, Brune — who started his environmental career as a Greenpeace campaigner — is now leading an organization with 1.3 million members and 400 chapters.

His ascension to one of the top jobs in American environmentalism comes at a turning point for the green movement. The decade’s best shot at imposing a national cap on greenhouse gas emissions has failed in the U.S. Senate, despite years of effort by groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council to forge a coalition with Fortune 500 companies to pass climate change legislation.

“I think we need to a do a very honest and candid reflection on why various iterations of cap and trade legislation have failed,” says Brune, whose soft-spoken manner belies a reputation as a hard-nosed negotiator. “Millions of people have written e-mails, called their senators, demonstrated in the streets, taken actions in a variety of different ways, and still we can’t even get 50 votes, much less 60” in the Senate.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Brune sat down in his office at Sierra Club headquarters with writer Todd Woody to talk about the future of the environmental movement, his plans for the Sierra Club, and the next front in what author author Eric Pooley calls the “climate war.”

Yale Environment 360: With the failure of climate legislation, where does the environmental movement go from here?

Michael Brune: The first thing we need to do is a good assessment of what went wrong. We should not try to do the same thing and expect a different result. We need to rethink what the best way is to build momentum to fight climate change. Just as it was clear that one single bill wasn’t going to stop climate change, it’s also clear that there are many different avenues that we can take.

e360: What would be some of those avenues?

Brune: I think clearly right now focusing on administrative actions, regulatory actions, and perhaps more narrow but stronger legislation that would focus on reducing oil consumption and increasing the inventory of clean energy that is available. There’s a lot that can happen through the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] to protect the public health that Eight years from now we could have a third of the coal fleet replaced with clean energy.” will accelerate a transition away from dirty coal-fired power plants.

The Sierra Club over the past three or four years has been focused on stopping new coal-fired power plants from being built, arguably one of the most effective things we’ve ever done. Along with a broad coalition of grassroots groups, we’ve been able to stop about 131 new coal plants from being built.

That work is going to be evolving over the next several years to not only focus on stopping new plants but on retiring the biggest, oldest coal plants and replacing them with clean energy. So by supporting the EPA’s efforts to protect public health and tighten the controls on particulate matter and air toxins like mercury — there’s a whole series of regulations that are coming down the pike — we feel like we can achieve dramatic reductions and significantly decarbonize the power sector. We feel eight years from now we could have a third of the coal fleet be retired and replaced with clean energy.

You can read the rest of the interview here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In Wednesday’s New York Times, I write about a growing movement to repurpose farmland and toxic waste sites for big renewable energy projects:

LEMOORE, Calif. — Thousands of acres of farmland here in the San Joaquin Valley have been removed from agricultural production, largely because the once fertile land is contaminated by salt buildup from years of irrigation.

But large swaths of those dry fields could have a valuable new use in their future — making electricity.

Farmers and officials at Westlands Water District, a public agency that supplies water to farms in the valley, have agreed to provide land for what would be one of the world’s largest solar energy complexes, to be built on 30,000 acres.

At peak output, the proposed Westlands Solar Park would generate as much electricity as several big nuclear power plants.

Unlike some renewable energy projects blocked by objections that they would despoil the landscape, this one has the support of environmentalists.

The San Joaquin initiative is in the vanguard of a new approach to locating renewable energy projects: putting them on polluted or previously used land. The Westlands project has won the backing of groups that have opposed building big solar projects in the Mojave Desert and have fought Westlands for decades over the district’s water use. Landowners and regulators are on board, too.

“It’s about as perfect a place as you’re going to find in the state of California for a solar project like this,” said Carl Zichella, who until late July was the Sierra Club’s Western renewable programs director. “There’s virtually zero wildlife impact here because the land has been farmed continuously for such a long time and you have proximity to transmission, infrastructure and markets.”

Recycling contaminated or otherwise disturbed land into green energy projects could help avoid disputes when developers seek to build sprawling arrays of solar collectors and wind turbines in pristine areas, where they can affect wildlife and water supplies.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, for instance, are evaluating a dozen landfills and toxic waste sites for wind farms or solar power plants. In Arizona, the Bureau of Land Management has begun a program to repurpose landfills and abandoned mines for renewable energy.

In Southern California, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has proposed building a 5,000-megawatt solar array complex, part of which would cover portions of the dry bed of Owens Lake, which was drained when the city began diverting water from the Owens Valley in 1913. Having already spent more than $500 million to control the intense dust storms that sweep off the lake, the agency hopes solar panels can hold down the dust while generating clean electricity for the utility. A small pilot project will help determine if solar panels can withstand high winds and dust.

“Nothing about this is simple, but it’s worth doing,” Austin Beutner, the department’s interim general manager, said of the pilot program.

All of the projects are in early stages of development, and many obstacles remain. But the support they’ve garnered from landowners, regulators and environmentalists has attracted the interest of big solar developers such as SunPower and First Solar as well as utilities under pressure to meet aggressive renewable energy mandates.

Those targets have become harder to reach as the sunniest undeveloped land is put off limits.

Last December, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, introduced legislation to protect nearly a million acres of the Mojave Desert from renewable energy development.

But the senator’s bill also includes tax incentives for developers who build renewable energy projects on disturbed lands.

For Westlands farmers, the promise of the solar project is not clean electricity, but the additional water allocations they will get if some land is no longer used for farming.

“Westlands’ water supply has been chronically short over the past 18 years, so one of the things we’ve tried to do to balance supply and demand is to take land out of production,” said Thomas W. Birmingham, general manager of the water district, which acquired 100,000 acres and removed the land from most agricultural production. “The conversion of district-owned lands into areas that can generate electricity will help to reduce the cost of providing water to our farmers.”

You can read the rest of the story here:

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